exercise selection- JMax Fitness

Does Exercise Selection Confuse You? Here’s How to Simplify It

My dad has a lot of tools.
I walked into his garage the other day, and I swear it looked like the inside of a Lowe’s shopping centre. My first thought was, “Man, this is pretty cool.”

After all, to me – and most guys out there – power tools are pretty intriguing. My second thought was, “Damn, if I ever need a tool for something, I have no idea which one I’m going to pick.” With so many tools at my disposal (even if I know some basic stuff like “a hammer is used to hit nails”), how do I know I’m picking the “right” tool for any one particular job? Now, what’s funny– or not so funny I guess – is this is the same response I had when I walked into the gym for the first time. There were a million exercises at my disposal. I knew what some of these exercises were (and how to perform them). However, I didn’t know what they were used for, when to use them, or how, ultimately, to change them when I eventually reached a plateau. But, I do now (or at least, I know more than when I started). I want to share what I’ve learned about exercise selection in this quick and easy-to-use article.  

Some Ground Rules

Before we discuss each particular sport (powerlifting and bodybuilding), it’s important to highlight a few key principles that go into program design as it relates to exercise selection. These are the same regardless of the sport or physical activity you engage in.

  1. Compound exercises are placed before isolation exercises in a workout.  
  2. Strength (or “heavy”) work is placed before hypertrophy/endurance (or “light”) work in a workout.
  3. The most technical lifts are placed before the least technical lifts in a workout.
  4. The main lifts are programmed before accessory or supplemental lifts.
  5. Each training session contains 1-2 main lifts.
  6. Each training session contains 1-2 accessory lifts.
  7. Each training session contains 2-3 supplemental lifts.
  8. Main lifts are changed every 4-12 weeks (on average).
  9. Accessory lifts are changed every 4-12 weeks (on average).
  10. Supplemental lifts are changed every 2-8 weeks (on average).
  11. Accessory lifts can be used as main lifts and main lifts can be used as accessory lifts.
  12. If something is working and you’re making progress…DON’T CHANGE IT.

Again, the 12 points above apply no matter which strength sport or physical activity you’re participating in. So, refer back to this list as you move through the remainder of this article. With that being said, it’s important to understand that these are just guidelines. They are not unwavering facts that can’t be tampered with. If you’re getting results utilizing the above guidelines to a “T” – which I assume you will – great, don’t change anything. But, if you’re not getting the results you want, and you think you may have a better idea for how to implement certain exercises into your routine, don’t hesitate to experiment.   


In powerlifting, everything revolves around the squat, bench press, and the deadlift.  

These are your main lifts. These are the movements that, no matter what (unless you’re injured) are always in your current training plan in some way, shape, or form.

Once your main lifts are established, emphasis switches to your accessory lifts. These movements are designed to build the squat, bench press, and the deadlift. Ideally, you want to choose exercises that resemble the main lifts as much as possible. For example, an accessory lift for the back squat would be a front squat or a pause squat. An accessory lift for the bench press would be a close grip bench press or a floor press. And an accessory lift for the deadlift would be a deficit deadlift or a Romanian deadlift. Once you’ve gotten your accessory lifts in place, the last thing to do is figure out your supplemental lifts. These are the lifts that are designed to bring up weak points and/or increase muscle mass. Generally speaking, these include exercises for the upper back, abs, lats, shoulders, and arms. You can certainly add some extra work for your quads, hamstrings, glutes, pecs, etc. as you see fit.    

Exercise List

exercise selection

“I want to share what I’ve learned about exercise selection in this quick and easy-to-use article. “

Main Lifts – Back Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift

Accessory Lifts:

Squat – Front Squat, Pause Squat, Safety Bar Squat, Box Squat

Bench – Close Grip Bench, Paused Bench, Overhead Press (OHP), Incline Press, Decline Press, Dumbbell Bench, Incline Dumbbell Bench, Decline Dumbbell Bench, Floor Press

Deadlift – Sumo Deadlift (if you pull conventional), Conventional Deadlift (if you pull sumo), Deficit Deadlift, Trap Bar Deadlift, Block Pulls, Rack Pulls, Romanian Deadlifts, Good Mornings

Supplemental Lifts:

Upper Back – Barbell Rows, Reverse Grip Barbell Rows, T-Bar Rows, Cable Rows, Hammer Strength Rows, Dumbbell Rows, Kroc Rows, Meadows Rows

Lats – Pull-Ups, Chin-Ups, Neutral Grip Chin-Ups, Wide Grip Lat Pulldown, Close Grip Lat Pulldown, Inverted Rows

Abs – Deadbugs (all variations), Planks (all variations), Farmer’s Carries (all variations), Reverse Crunches, Hollow Body Holds, Hanging Leg Raises, Weighted Decline Crunches, Cable Palof Press

Shoulders – OHP, Seated Shoulder Press, Arnold Presses, Reverse Grip Lateral Raises, Lateral Raises, Cable Face Pulls, Landmine Presses

Arms – Barbell Curls, Dumbbell Curls, Incline Dumbbell Curls, Preacher Curls, Concentration Curls, Machine Curls, Cable Curls, Skullcrushers, Single-Arm Tricep Extension, Dumbbell Tricep Kickback, Rope Tricep Pressdown, Machine Tricep Pressdown


exercise selection

“Again, bodybuilding and powerlifting are fairly similar, and shouldn’t be approached as two completely separate entities.”

There isn’t a whole lot of difference between bodybuilding-style training and powerlifting-style training. Powerlifters train like bodybuilders and bodybuilders train like powerlifters (just to varying degrees) whether they like to admit or not. You can approach exercise selection for bodybuilding similarly to the way you approach exercise selection for powerlifting.

However, although powerlifting and bodybuilding are similar, they do have some differences. The biggest things to keep in mind when choosing exercises for your bodybuilding routine are as follows:

  1. Bodybuilding DOESN’T revolve around the squat, bench press, or the deadlift.  Although it’s still a good idea to keep them in as they’re some of the best exercises for improving strength, size, and power, you don’t HAVE to keep them in for each training cycle. You don’t have to use them at all.
  2. Because there aren’t any competition lifts, the main criteria for choosing exercises are 1.) Their ability to build muscle, and 2.) Their ability to NOT cause pain or injury.
  3. Isolation exercises (flys, leg extensions, leg curls, lateral raises, etc.) isolate a muscle in a way that compound exercises can’t.  Therefore, they’re just as good at building muscle as compound exercises. They should make up a decent proportion of your training plan.

^^ The above is not meant to say that isolation exercises are “equal” to compound exercises.   Compound exercises – on top of building muscle mass – increase strength, speed, athleticism, and lead to a much greater hormonal response.  Compound exercises are better OVERALL; isolation exercises just match their muscle building capacity. 

Again, bodybuilding and powerlifting are fairly similar, and shouldn’t be approached as two completely separate entities. Both work to enhance the other. However, there are still some differences between the two. Make sure you keep those differences in mind when you go to design your next training plan.

Exercise List


– Set the foundation as something similar to that of a powerlifter, and build on it from there.

What Do We Do When We Hit a Plateau?

exercise selection

“Choose some exercises (strategically of course), and start trying to progress them from one workout to the next.”


You switch exercises. Like I mentioned in the “guidelines” section of this article, I like to switch main lifts every 4-12 weeks (generally around 12), accessory lifts every 4-12 weeks, and supplemental lifts every 2-8 weeks.  

This is because:

  1. It reduces boredom.
  2. It decreases the risk of overuse injuries.
  3. It allows you to tackle weak points that may be limiting your performance.

Of course, you don’t HAVE to switch exercises every time you hit a plateau. You could also change your volume, intensity, frequency, or mess around with your progression scheme. But, for the purposes of this article, changing exercises once you hit a plateau is a great way to re-stimulate progress. The time frames I’ve recommended are pretty standard. However, the biggest determinant of whether you should change an exercise is whether you’re still making progress. If you are, leave it alone. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been using the same lift for the past 6 weeks or 6 months. If you’re not making progress, switch to something else.   

Wrapping Things Up

A lot of people make exercise selection much more complicated than it needs to be.  

Choose some exercises (strategically of course), and start trying to progress them from one workout to the next. Once you stop making progress, switch exercises, and start trying to progress THOSE from one workout to the next.

It’s really that simple. Do what works until it stops working. Then, figure out something else that works, and start doing that.  

About the Author

Nick Smoot Head Shot (1)Nick Smoot is a personal trainer and nutrition coach out of Newport News, VA. He got his start in the fitness industry back in 2012, and since then he’s spent countless hours helping clients become the best versions of themselves possible. In his free time, he enjoys lifting heavy things, eating, writing, traveling, nerding out on video games, and eating.